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Should Jets bring back Nathan Shepherd for 2022 NFL season?

Jets Nathan Shepherd treated art

Nathan Shepherd was the first of two defensive linemen selected by the Jets in the 2018 NDL Draft but has arguably been overshadowed by Folorunso Fatukasi, who was selected three rounds later.

In his four seasons with the team, Shepherd has only started nine games and recorded just 4.5 sacks.

Even so, he was a regular fixture in the Jets’ defensive line rotation in 2021 and the Jets will need to decide whether they will sign him to a new contract to bring him back in the same role in 2022.

Case to stay

Head coach Robert Saleh has often underlined the importance of having a deep defensive line and Shepherd provides the Jets with an affordable option to fill out their rotation. Saleh singled Shepherd out for praise among the other more established names a number of times during the season.

Bringing Shepherd back would provide continuity heading into next season and hopefully provides the team with a dependable option. He was one of only three players to play on defense in all 17 games in 2021.

Shepherd got off to a slow start, but he performed better as the season went along. When Fatukasi and Quinnen Williams missed time down the stretch, he took on a larger workload and still held up well, including in the win over the Jacksonville Jaguars where he was on the field for 62 snaps. This perhaps suggests that it took him a while to grip the new scheme, but he ultimately started to figure it out as the season was winding down.

Over the course of the season, Shepherd quietly racked up 28 tackles, almost doubling his career-high, and tied his career-best mark for quarterback hits with eight.

The Jets may have been planning for Jonathan Marshall – a seventh round pick in 2021 – to take Shepherd or Fatukasi’s place in the rotation in 2022, but his struggles during preseason and when called upon in the regular season may cause the team to rethink this plan. However, Fatukasi barely saw the field when he was a rookie and then was extremely effective in a full-time role in his second season, so the Jets may be counting on Marshall making a similar jump in Year 2.

Case to go

For much of last year, it seemed like Shepherd wasn’t a good fit in Saleh’s scheme and that he would be likely to move on at the end of the year, despite Saleh’s praise. The main difference between Saleh’s system and the one that preceded it was that the interior linemen were required to attack and penetrate into the backfield. Despite this change in role, Shepherd didn’t register a sack or tackle for loss all season.

As was well-documented throughout the year, the Jets had one of the worst run defenses in the league statistically, despite that having previously been a strength in recent seasons. While the defensive line doesn’t necessarily bear all of the responsibility for this, a lot of the damage in terms of some of the longest plays was typically done while backups, including Shepherd, were on the field.

Early in the season, it looked like Shepherd could be in danger of being cut when he was flagged for five penalties in two games. However, a few of these might have been bad calls and, to his credit, Shepherd’s on-field discipline was much improved thereafter, with just one penalty over the last 12 games.

Even though he’s only just getting to the end of his rookie contract, Shepherd will turn 29 early in the 2022 season so he’s probably reached his ceiling. The Jets may instead prefer to have someone with more youth and potential – perhaps Marshall himself – filling out the depth roles on this team.


As with many of the other pending free agents, Shepherd’s immediate future might depend on the Jets’ longer-term plans at his position. With Williams due for a big-money extension soon, Fatukasi also seeking a long-term deal, and Sheldon Rankins also under contract with a sizable cap hit in 2022, there may not be much room to give another contract to a veteran.

If, however, one or more of these players will be departing then Shepherd could be the exact kind of low-cost veteran the team might seek to bring back and use regularly in their rotation. It may ultimately depend on if there’s much of an external market for him because if there isn’t, then it would make sense for him to return and compete for his spot.

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